“I heard from the horse’s mouth it’s the most scientific alphabet in the world,” I once overheard a South Korean student say as he showed a Westerner a display on Hangeul, Korea’s indigenous alphabet, at the National Museum of Korea.
Get over it, I thought, annoyed at what seemed like nationalist bragging. It’s just an alphabet. What d’you want to do, get a team of UNESCO experts to measure it with a scientific-ometer and recommend it to the Nobel Committee, proving once and for all that Korean culture is the best in the world?
But it has to be said, Hangeul is a unique and wonderful thing. Developed under the reign of King Sejong in the fifteenth century, it was tailor-made to fit the sounds of the Korean language. Its angular letters are said to be based on the shapes of the tongue and lips as they form the represented sounds. And each letter has a defined and immutable sound — perhaps because Hangeul is used only by Koreans, no other cultures have taken its letters and ascribed different sounds to them, as has happened with the Roman alphabet.
Were Hangeul not so effective, it could easily have been discontinued after Sejong’s reign, forgotten as an eccentric project cooked up by the inventive king and his team of hotshot young scholars. But 500 years later, its position is stronger than ever. Even North and South Korea agree that it’s irreplaceable.
The flip side of Hangeul’s perfect fit with Korean is its inflexibility when transcribing other languages. Listen to a South Korean pronouncing the name of Tous Les Jours (뚜레쥬르), a national bakery chain, and you may well not have a clue what’s being said. Any sound that doesn’t exist in Korean has to be approximated with the nearest available Korean letter.
English ‘v’ and ‘f’ become ‘ㅂ’ (roughly a ‘b’ sound) and ‘ㅍ’ or ‘ㅎ’ (‘p’ or ‘h’), respectively. “Listen to the following bowels,” was the English instruction read by a Korean on a language learning tape that I once came across.
An English ‘th’ becomes a ‘ㄷ’ or a ‘ㅆ’ (roughly ‘d’ or ‘ss’). ‘Z,’ too, is represented by ‘ㅈ’ (‘j’), so that sometimes Korean friends will tell you that they “took their kids to the Jew” over the weekend. Meanwhile, the French final nasal ‘n’ becomes a final ‘ㅇ’ (‘ng’), which probably gave rise to the Gangnam café named “Bong Paris”: a re-Romanization of Hangeul-ized French.
Is it cultural blasphemy to suggest adding more Hangeul letters to cover these newer sounds? I’ve seen how much time and effort South Koreans put into learning foreign languages, especially English. Quite often, their English or French pronunciation becomes irreparably scarred because sounds without corresponding Hangeul letters can’t be expressed.
People go to huge lengths here in search of perfect pronunciation, even getting frenectomies on the tissue below the tongue in order to better pronounce ‘L’ and ‘r’ (even though both of these sounds exist in Korean anyway). There is high demand for all things related to speaking better English.
The case gets even stronger when you look at the huge and increasing number of foreign words, mainly from the English language, now used in South Korea. Though the National Institute of Korean Language has not conducted a recent survey, data from 2002 put the number of loanwords at more than 24,000, or some five percent of all Korean dictionary entries.
The Hangeul alphabet is ripe for augmentation: Already, many of its consonants are variations on single elements: ‘ㅁ’ (‘m’) is modified to produce ‘ㅂ’ (‘b’), ‘ㅍ’ (‘p’) or ‘ㅃ’ (‘pp’). All of these sounds begin with pursed lips, roughly resembling the original ‘ㅁ.’ Just one more modification could be introduced to represent a ‘v’ sound, for example, perhaps something like a ‘曰’ (a hypothetical character that hasn’t been suggested by anyone else as far as I know).
You could argue that there’s no justification for contaminating Korea’s indigenous alphabet with foreign sounds, but this purist stance is undermined by the fact the language itself (in South Korea, especially) is already riddled with the aforementioned thousands of loanwords.
But there’s an intriguing twist to this story: Several sounds now found only in foreign languages once did have Hangeul letters to represent them, but these letters have now become obsolete.
‘ㆄ,’ for example, appears to have represented a sound close to the English ‘f,’ while ‘ㅸ’ was close to an English ‘v.’ These letters are logical modifications of ‘ㅍ’ (‘p’) and ‘ㅂ’ (‘b’), respectively. Their reintroduction into the Hangeul alphabet could create an instant and clear distinction between “fine” and “pine” and “very” and “berry,” currently spelled the same way in Hangeul.
‘ㅿ,’ meanwhile, is thought to have been pronounced in a similar way to an English ‘z,’ which could eliminate fictional countries like Jambia and Jimbabwe at a stroke.
Of course, there is no way of knowing exactly how these letters were originally pronounced. In the absence of mass media and recording technology, they may not even have had a consistent pronunciation. But that just increases their flexibility when it comes to fitting loan sounds.
Another novel adaptation of an obsolete letter was the use of ‘ᄙ’ (“double” ‘ㄹ’) in the early 20th century. According to Ross King, a professor of Korean at the University of British Columbia (UBC), this letter was used by Soviet Korean publications prior to 1937 to represent the initial ‘L’ of Lenin. ‘ㄹ’ itself can be pronounced as an ‘L,’ but only when followed by another ‘ㄹ’; this is not possible at the beginning of a word, so the conventional Hangeul spelling would have been pronounced “Renin.”
But some have gone much further than suggesting the mere reintroduction of old letters as a hack for pronouncing loanwords or learning foreign languages.
In 1971, Lee Hyun-bok, professor emeritus of phonetics and linguistics at Seoul National University, presented a paper announcing his creation of the International Korean Phonetic Alphabet (IKPA). Designed, like the existing International Phonetic Alphabet (a phonetic notation system based mostly on the Latin and Greek alphabets) to express most sounds found in languages around the world, the IKPA is based on Hangeul currently in use today, to which are added some of the obsolete letters mentioned above and a series of other symbols newly devised by Lee.
But what’s the point, when the IPA already exists and is in use?
“When I was doing ear training at University College London I realized how unsystematic the IPA was,” said Lee. But whereas the IPA uses a collection of Greek and Latin letters, Hangeul “is an organic alphabet that represents the speech organs, which makes it a type of universal visible speech or symbol.”
Here, Lee is referring to the anthropomorphic basis of Hangeul’s letters: ‘ㄱ’ represents the tongue touching the top of the palate, while ‘ㅁ’ represents pursed lips, ‘ㄹ’ the curled tongue pronouncing an ‘r’ and so on.
The IKPA, Lee adds, is more systematic because the other sounds it represents are derived from these basic building blocks. All he has done with the IKPA is extend this logical trend, modifying existing Hangeul letters to cover a greater range of sounds.
So what about adding IKPA characters to the regular Hangeul alphabet?
King of UBC is doubtful, saying, “It would certainly be possible. The problem is that reintroducing a defunct letter doesn’t mean that it will help Korean speakers pronounce the foreign sound correctly. All it would do would be to place various new burdens on society and speakers — especially if this reintroduction was in some way ‘official’ and incorporated into government-mandated rules for spelling foreign loanwords. This would entail financial outlays as well as a cognitive burden.”
But Lee expresses greater optimism, saying “The [South] Korean government and many scholars would be reluctant to include IKPA symbols in the table of the Korean alphabet, since they are not Korean speech sounds. But I think it will be useful to introduce a limited number of IKPA symbols corresponding to [f, v, ʃ, ʒ, ʃ, ɵ, ð, ə, l, r] in the table of the Korean alphabet as special symbols, and specially in the Koreanization system of foreign words. And of course, it would be very useful in foreign language learning and teaching.”
King is wary of nationalism driving some efforts at the “globalization” of Hangeul, such as the script’s much-heralded adoption by Indonesia’s Cia-Cia tribe in 2009 (which also used the reintroduced letter ‘ㅸ’ to represent a ‘v’ sound), talking of a “ far-right script-nationalist fringe” and “a mystical belief fueled by ethnonationalism that the Korean script is the best.”
One 2009 news report on the Cia-Cia affair sounds a typically nationalist note, concluding, “This first success in the Hangeul globalization project has highlighted the question of whether Hangeul can go beyond the Korean Peninsula and make the leap to becoming a global script.”
The successful “export” of Hangeul to the Cia-Cia was framed in many Korean media as a way of preventing the disappearance of the Cia-Cia language. Others, however, pointed out that the success of Hangeul was exaggerated, saying that the lack of a usable script was not the problem, since Cia-Cia attending school already learned the Roman alphabet in order to read and write Indonesia’s national language.
But, globalization projects aside, dusting off old Hangeul letters and introducing a few new ones to allow more sounds to be represented would surely win the approval of King Sejong, who invented the script for precisely that purpose?
“I think Sejong would probably say: please make a distinction between learning a foreign language and using Hangeul to render foreign languages, and reading and pronouncing Korean — no need to be more foreign than the foreigners in your pronunciations of the words you borrow from them,” said King.
In other words, what does it matter if caffè latte is pronounced “kappè ratte” in Korean? Loanwords acquire new pronunciations all the time — just look at what the English do with imported French terms.
Lee, on the other hand, believes the late king would welcome an extension of his alphabet into the IKPA: “I’ve no doubt he would be delighted. Because while Hunmin Jeongeum [Hangeul’s original name] was an orthography for the commoners of Joseon, the IKPA in the 21st century can function as a universal visible speech for precisely transcribing the languages of all humanity, not just Koreans.”
Cover image: Illustration from the cover of “International Korean Phonetic Alphabet: Universal Visible Speech.” (Source: Prof. Lee Hyun-bok)